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Falcons' first or Brady's fifth? Patriots favored in Super Bowl LI

Falcons' first or Brady's fifth? Patriots favored in Super Bowl LI

HOUSTON -- Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots are at home in Houston, where they won Super Bowl XXXVIII, and accustomed to the NFL's biggest stage.

The Atlanta Falcons are in their second Super Bowl and strive to secure the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history on Sunday in Super Bowl LI.

"It is a great privilege to be here and represent the AFC in this game," Belichick said of preparing for his 10th Super Bowl, including three as an assistant coach. "It is where you want to be at the end of the year. We are here this year. We are proud to be here."

The Falcons, in head coach Dan Quinn's second year, rode the NFL's highest-scoring offense (33.8 points per game) to the top of the NFC. The trophy on the line Sunday is the hardware that matters, but Atlanta's achievements already include offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan being named assistant coach of the year and Matt Ryan as offensive player of the year. The MVP award was handed out Saturday night, and Ryan won as expected.

Belichick and the Patriots are hailed for finding ways to eliminate the top playmakers of the opposition, but choosing where to start with Atlanta is no easy decision.

Wide receiver Julio Jones averaged 17 yards per reception and will command extra attention, Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan said, but the Falcons also thrived in the running game. As the only team to start all five offensive linemen in every game this season, there's cohesion around big-ticket free agent addition Alex Mack. Mack was the top-rated run blocker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and Atlanta's running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman averaged more than 170 yards from scrimmage in 2016.

Jones said he will likely play "everywhere" in the formation to dictate matchups, but the Patriots just shut down Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown in the AFC title game despite the Pittsburgh Steelers establishing that hide-and-seek approach to formation changes.

"I don't think there's much Bill and his staff hasn't seen before," Shanahan said. "They've seen a lot of football and they do it as good as anyone. The main thing is giving your players confidence going into the game knowing that when we do see what they're doing, you give our players the ability to adjust for us to go in a number of difference directions. They're as good as it gets, so we know it'll be a huge challenge, something that we're working at just like they are. When the game starts, it's going to come down to trying to put our guys in good position and enjoy watching them go."

The Patriots are plotting how to handle Ryan, which starts with making him uncomfortable in the pocket. Quinn said turnovers -- a major issue in the Falcons' nosedive from a 5-0 start in 2015 -- might decide the game. But he also believes the defense that grabs the advantage early will also have a big edge.

Atlanta's front five isn't bulletproof. Ryan, a pocket passer, was heavily pressured in losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles in the regular season -- film the Patriots have no doubt reviewed in their two weeks of preparation. New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said the risk in sending an extra body to make Ryan move from his launch point is that approach leaves Coleman and Freeman open in space, where they've been destructive.

"They do an unbelievable job of making guys either miss in open space, whether it's tackling or in your approach angles," Patricia said. "Their vision that they run with is phenomenal. What's great is when they get them out of the backfield, the passing game -- great for them, not for me -- is trying to defend them. They run receiver routes, the quarterback trusts them to get the ball to them very quickly."

Quinn was defensive coordinator of the Seahawks two years ago in Glendale, Ariz., when the Patriots beat Seattle with a dramatic interception at the goal line from cornerback Malcolm Butler. But the memorable plays from that game to Quinn were Brady piling up completions with ease in the second half, including what proved to be the game-winning score to wide receiver Julian Edelman in the final minute.

Quinn's defense was 27th in the NFL in points allowed and starts four rookies, which could be viewed as blood in the water for Brady, who is one win from setting the modern-day record with five Super Bowl wins.

"When you have this many young guys feeling their way and making strides quickly -- that's the most important thing -- we don't really look at the risk side of things," Quinn said. "They wouldn't be in there if they weren't ready. They've earned it."

Brady said he will not be motivated by any grudge against commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2016 season for his role in Deflategate. In 12 games this season, Brady was sacked just 15 times and had a TD-to-INT ratio of 28-12. Against Atlanta, a defense built on speed, the Patriots could install an extra offensive lineman or tight end and play power football to force the Falcons to adjust.

Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.9 yards per carry and had 18 touchdowns on 299 carries.

"Tom Brady is a future Hall of Fame quarterback. It's hard to stop a guy like that that knows defenses," Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said. "He's seen it all. The thing that we have to do is rattle him and make sure he's not comfortable in the pocket.

"We know in this league that the ball comes out 2.4, 2.5 (seconds) 90 percent of the time, so any way we can affect him by getting our hands up, or getting a hit and getting him rattled, anything we can do to disrupt him is going to be great for us."

NFL preview 2019: Derek Carr, three other possible MVP sleepers in AFC

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USATSI

NFL preview 2019: Derek Carr, three other possible MVP sleepers in AFC

With training camps getting started, hope once again springs eternal in the NFL.

Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are primed to defend their crown, but a pack of worthy challengers is frothing at the mouth for the chance to take down the king.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes sits atop the NFL's other throne as The Shield's reigning league MVP. The dynamic signal-caller once again is viewed as the favorite to take home the hardware, and while the like of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Baker Mayfield, Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers are viewed as the most likely to take the crown from Mahomes, the AFC has a few other young passers who are lying in wait.

When looking at possible MVP sleepers in the AFC, I made sure to look only at players that had odds at 80-to-1 or higher, as listed by Westgate Las Vegas. With the framework set, here are four potential MVP sleepers who reside in the AFC.

Derek Carr, QB, Raiders

The Case For: Carr has the arm talent and the leadership qualities to be an MVP. We saw that in 2016 when he led the Raiders to a 12-3 record before fracturing his fibula in Week 16. With a wealth of offensive talent around -- including Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams, -- and a full year of Jon Gruden's system under his belt, it wouldn't be hard to see Carr returning to his MVP-caliber form in 2019. If he puts up big numbers while helping the Raiders navigate a tough early-season schedule, he should be in the mix.

The Case Against: There was little about the Raiders' offense in 2018 that would tell you a turn around is coming. The offensive line struggled and the running game was relatively non-existent. This is a make or break year for the Carr-Gruden relationship and there's a chance it just won't work.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans

The Case For: Despite a shaky offensive line, Watson completed 68.3 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,165 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 551 yards and five scores. If the Clemson product can get some protection, he could put up big numbers and lead the Texans to another AFC West title. The recipe for an MVP campaign is there for Watson.

The Case Against: The offensive line is atrocious. Watson might spend more time running for his life than looking downfield for the streaking DeAndre Hopkins. If the Texans can't keep Watson off his back, there will be no MVP delusions in Houston.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans

The Case For: When he's been healthy, Mariota has put up good numbers. That was with an offense designed for the 1940s with one offensive weapon. Mariota enters a make-or-break year for him with the Titans with two new wide receivers in rookie A.J. Brown and former Buccaneers Adam Humphries. If new offensive coordinator Arthur Humphries can tailor the offense to Mariota's strengths, the possibility for a breakout season is there.

The Case Against: Look, he hasn't been able to stay healthy. If Mariota can't stay on the field, then his chance at winning the MVP and the Titans' playoff hopes go in the trash can.

[RELATED: How Raiders' defense stacks up against AFC West rivals]

Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens

The Case For: Jackson rushed for 556 yards in the seven games he started last season. If you extrapolate that over a 16-game season, it amounts to 1,271 yards. That would be more than the 1,039 yards Michael Vick rushed for in 2006. If Jackson has improved his passing and leads the Ravens to the playoffs, he could very well be an MVP sleeper.

The Case Against: As the Los Angeles Chargers showed in the AFC Wild Card Game, it's easy to stop Jackson if he's only able to move the chains with his legs. If the Louisville product hasn't made big strides with his accuracy and pocket presence then he won't be in the MVP conversation.

Raiders' Jon Gruden ranked as 15th-best veteran head coach by NFL.com

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AP

Raiders' Jon Gruden ranked as 15th-best veteran head coach by NFL.com

Just win, baby.

Twice in his career, Jon Gruden has been given that directive as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. He was considerably more successful the first time around.

Gruden never finished below .500 in his first go-around with the Raiders, but in making his return to the franchise last year, he led Oakland to a 4-12 record -- tied for the worst record in the AFC.

Right after Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million contract to move out of the Monday Night Football booth and back to the sidelines, many questioned whether his time away from coaching would put him behind the eight-ball. Given how the Raiders performed last season, it didn't exactly silence that noise.

And yet, at least one analyst believes Gruden is still an above-average coach. NFL.com's Elliot Harrison ranked the 32 NFL head coaches Monday, and Gruden came in at No. 15.

Here's what Harrison had to say about Chucky:

"As [Gruden] shipped out star players and cut ties with front office execs he didn't want in Oakland last year, the Raiders managed just four wins. That's why '19 should be the tell on what kind of coach he is going forward. New GM Mike Mayock helped Gruden begin to rebuild the roster after stockpiling picks, providing an infusion of talent that should at least make this team more competitive. Given the strength of the division-rival Chargers and Chiefs, simply leading Oakland to the playoffs should be a ringing endorsement for the coach."

[RELATED: Raiders given 20th best outlook in future power rankings]

Indeed, if they make the playoffs this coming season, that's an undeniable success for Gruden and the Raiders in their final season in Oakland -- one that would be worthy of Gruden ascending on next year's coaching rankings. But, as Harrison suggests, it's not going to be easy.